I’d almost forgotten. I’d almost forgotten what it was like. The memory of that group of men and their white hot rage, the memory of the sound of bone hitting concrete, the sound of fear.
It was the tail end of 1984 and I was at a gay bar with my best mate, Kevin. It was a regular event, though for me, it was my first legal outing, my first post-18 serving of alcohol. We danced to Blue Monday, watched friends do their regular drag routine (to “Drop the Pilot” as I recall), sprinkled glitter on our faces, and drank cheap sparkling wine. Sometime after 1am we tumbled downstairs, jubilant.
Outside, a group of about eight men waited. Some of them had bats in their hands. Some had knuckle dusters. Some, just fists and pure rage. It wasn’t unusual for them to wait outside the club: this was 1984, it was Newcastle, and fear was everywhere. What was unusual was that they got us. Most nights, we walked out with our heads down, ducked down side streets, sidled along the main street, or headed out in numbers. Most nights, the bouncers were still there. Or maybe we’d just been lucky, and others had not. This time, it was our turn.
Thirty years later, that night came back to me with the force of a punch. Last night I went, with my two teenagers and my Welsh husband, to see the film Pride at our local Govindas Movie House. There, beneath the pictures of Krishna, we ate dhal and poppodums and lay on mattresses and purple cushions while we watched this film about the moment the Lesbian and Gay community gathered together to support the miners, and the way they connected with a particular Welsh village.
I began weeping quietly about three minutes in, and by the time the credits rolled I had to put a cardigan over my head to hide my sobbing. I rolled over to hide my face (my teenagers were with me, so it was important that I hide my face) in the Welshman’s chest, but he had both arms over his face covering his own tears. And so I had to lie with my cardigan over my face and wait for the tears to subside while my children tapped my shoulders and asked why I was crying.
Truthfully, I don’t remember much: I’d not gone lightly on the cheap bubbly. I was 18, and immortal. This was in an Australian coastal city, Newcastle. North, like its namesake Newcastle-on-Tyne, and edged by mining towns. I remember running, laughing at first (because I was 18, and immortal, and everything could be made lighter with laughter) and then the laughter turning to fear as I heard the sound of wood on bone. Everything happened quickly then – not slowly – and one friend, Carl, dressed in a pristine white suit and white stilettos, had blood dripping down his perfect silhouette. Someone else had a broken hand, and Kevin’s face was smashed, his jaw broken, his teeth mashed. Taxi drivers wouldn’t take us – they rarely would, when we came out of that club or one of the other gay bars in the city – and we began limping up to the hospital that sat on the edge of the cliff overlooking the sea. Kevin spent six weeks there. He told his parents it was a mugging, that his wallet had been stolen. But it wasn’t his wallet they wanted.
I’d not forgotten Kevin, and I’d not forgotten that night. I hadn’t even forgotten Pipers, the tawdry, tacky club where I wasted most of my weekend nights in my last year of high school. But I had forgotten just how much has changed in my culture. My children see inequality in the marriage laws, but would find it mystifying to have a gay friend at school pretend to be straight. I’d forgotten how it was, how being gay made you ‘other’. I’ve not forgotten that this is still the case in many countries.
In 1985, the miners union marched at the head of the Pride march in London. The same year, gay and lesbian rights were at last enshrined in the Labour Party constitution, as a result of the National Union of Miners blocking the vote. But the miners, after a terrible year of hardship, had lost their own battle and returned to work broken.
So I was crying partly for history. Partly, like the Welshman, for Wales. And partly for the anger of injustices old and new. (There is a tiny clip early on, of Thatcher, her face frozen in a demented rictus grin, as she says, “One is called to be a firm leader, a hard leader. This is what I must do.” And if she resembles anyone, with that death-grin, it’s Prime Minister Tony Abbot, calling out ‘terrorists’ and warning against the dangers of solidarity, and of love.)
In 1984, the Welsh mining union rep, Dai Donovan, addressed the crowd at the Pits and Perverts concert. He said, “You have worn our badge, and you know what harassment means…Now we will pin your badge on us, we will support you.” Of the moment the following year, when the Welsh miners turned up in London to march at the head of the Gay Pride parade, one of the members of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners says, “You could glimpse a wonderful revolution, that spark of the dream of people being together.”
In 2014, just before Christmas, while Sydney baked and its inhabitants began wrapping gifts, a mentally ill man with a gun and a history of hurting women stormed into the Lindt Cafe in Martin Place. Over a terrible 18 hours, we watched and waited, hoping for a peaceful outcome. In the midst of the publicity, in the midst of the helicopter blades, a beautiful hashtag, #Illridewithyou burst out into the city, threatening to face down fear and hatred with love, reminding us of the power in solidarity, a glimpse of hope, that spark of the dream.
And that’s what kept me weeping there on the mattress in Govindas Movie House. Hope, solidarity and love.
There are always at least two stories that will be told. One of them is the story of fear, suspicion and confusion. That story will continue to be told because shareholder profits depend on it, the expansion of the security industrial complex depends on it.
The other story is the story of Pride, and of my youth. The story of friendship, determination and hope. As we head into a new year, that’s the story that I will keep listening to, and it’s the story I will tell. Because our lives depend on it.
So, my correspondence with the darling ruffians over at LRB has continued. They seem puzzled as to how to find the lady writers, and bemusedly wrote that “Men vastly outnumber women among writers proposing pieces”.
Oooh, I said – so you don’t commission the pieces? You wait for them to come to you?
“Just to clarify, the vast majority of pieces that we carry are commissioned by the editors. I mentioned the proportions by gender among the unsolicited contributions only as evidence that more men than women actively seek to be published in journals such as ours”
In a conciliatory spirit, they said that perhaps some ‘positive discrimination’ might be called for.
So I sent this:
If the editors are commissioning the reviews you don’t need positive discrimination. You just need the editors to approach women. Below is a very incomplete list of eminent, established writers and academics, one or two of whom would, I am sure, be very happy to write for LRB and most of whom outrank or equal most contributors you’ve had. For the record, that list was drawn together from a five minute conversation, with very little intellectual effort involved.
By the way, we’ve just had a cursory glance at the current edition of New Writing, which is also drawing on writers and literary academics in the UK. There are six female contributors, six male and one of unknown gender. Paul, I want to applaud the space that the LRB inhabits; I want to celebrate the continuing insistence on giving serious literature serious attention. To produce a high quality literary journal is a major achievement. But it is no longer appropriate to continue positive discrimination in favour of men. I hope that you will have the courage to shift the template of the LRB…
I would suggest that as a start, an all female issue would be a bold statement of intent, effectively a statement on your willingness to address the issues raised in the recent studies.
The list follows. Any other suggestions for the LRB?
Some recent correspondence on the gender balance of the London Review of Books.
Dear Nicholas and Subscription team
Thanks for your recent letter expressing your concern for me in the form of a suggestion that I might have forgotten to renew my subscription.
I had planned a simple, quiet lapse, but as you have raised the question, let me assure you that I have not forgotten to renew.
Indeed, I would dearly love to renew my subscription, however, based on the tedious regularity with which you ignore female writers and female reviewers, I have to assume that my lady-money is quite simply not welcome in the man-cave of LRB.
With each issue my husband and I play the hilarious poker game “Guess the Ladies”, whereby contestants must take a punt on the number of female contributors to the LRB, or reviews of books written by women. The percentages are fascinating. It’s not hard, just open any issue and count the names – 16 men, 4 women, that sort of thing – give it a try, it’s a great game once you get the hang of it. Recently the game has extended to an advanced version whereby we compare your statistics to the Cambridge University Alumni Magazine. We would have assumed the LRB might be a teensy bit less conservative than the Alumni mag (recent features include a piece on old chairs) but, no, you win. And, congratulations – you also win the metaphorical arm wrestle in our household; we both give up. We can no longer tolerate the tedium with which we are able to predict the outcomes of our gender game. We have made the astonishing decision to create a life and an environment in which men and women have equal power, equal status, equal space. This is clearly not a world which the LRB chooses to inhabit.
If at some point you choose to step into the terrifying world of gender equality, do let us know.
Dr Kathryn Heyman
Dear Kathryn Heyman,
Many thanks for taking the time to let us know why you’ve decided to give up on the LRB. We’re very sorry to see you go, but respect your reasons. If you were interested, I’d be glad to discuss with you, perhaps in an email exchange, why it may be that women are underrepresented in the paper. I think they’re complicated; actually, as complicated as it gets. However, there’s no question that despite the distress it causes us that the proportion of women in the paper remains so stubbornly low, the efforts we’ve made to change the situation have been hopelessly unsuccessful. We’ll continue to try – the issue is on our minds constantly – in the hope that eventually you’ll feel ready to consider subscribing again. Best wishes,
PaulLONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS28 Little Russell StreetLondon WC1A 2HN
Firstly, apologies for the mass of appalling typos.
Secondly, I’m sorry, but I just can’t see what on earth you mean: efforts to change the situation? Really, Paul, with respect, it isn’t that hard. I could give you a list – off the top of my head – of scores of eminent established female novelists and non-fiction writers who are not being reviewed. I could give you a similar list of emerging female writers. So, what’s the problem? Are your reviewers allergic to lady-words? Or is your problem finding female reviewers (because only women will review women?)I’m sure you are aware of the facts in the publishing industry: more women write books, more women read books. Your pages are a shocking inverse to the reality.
I’m sorry, but as someone with (I assume) a nodding acquaintance with Aristotle, you know that we only know someone’s intentions through their actions. If this really causes you and your colleagues actual distress, change it. If you are genuine about not knowing how to do this, I am happy to call you and explain how.